To the uninitiated, the lengths to which food stylists go to make food look perfect may be surprising. As one person commented when we started on this story, surely if you want a photo of a chook, you just photograph a chook.
The problem with food photography is that food tends to dry out, shrink, discolour and sag — food styling is about counteracting these forces. As the photos on the following pages show, there’s a definite art to getting a picture of food that looks good enough to eat, rather than looking destined for the bin.
Here’s what goes on to get that one apparently simple pic.
Please note: this information was current as of January 2002 but is still a useful guide today.
Real or fake?
We talked to food stylists and found two schools of thought. Some try to use real food no matter what. Others use whatever techniques get the shot to look right — fake or not. And most are somewhere in between.
In Australia the real-food camp seems to hold sway, with most photos aiming for a natural look using the real thing (albeit with a make-up job). On the other hand, in the US, while they’re moving towards a more casual approach to food shots, the art of faking the parts of a shot that don’t fall foul of consumer protection laws seems to have been perfected.
Of course, there are different types of food photography. A shot for packaging or an ad has to show the real food being advertised, though that doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked, titivated and made-up. And an advertising picture is aiming for perfection. A photo for a glossy recipe mag is more likely to want a casual ‘real’ look than perfection. As one stylist put it, "Editorial is about drawing people into the experience of the food, while advertising is about capturing the perfect vision of the food."
Much food styling could be summarised as lateral thinking and patience, patience, patience — just keep setting up the food over and over or keep it constantly refreshed until the photographer gets the perfect shot. In fact, the photography itself is an art — it’s not unusual to spend most of a day getting the lighting perfect for a single shot.
Of course, these days fixing a shot which isn’t quite right can be as simple as a photo touch-up by computer — for example, one picture has the perfect cheesecake, while another has the perfect dollop of cream. Combine the two and the result is just what the client wanted.